"Rape Joke" Summary

Rape Joke” is a 2013 prose poem by Patricia Lockwood that recounts an experience of sexual assault.

  • The speaker refers to her rapist as “the rape joke,” explaining that he was her boyfriend, a close family friend, and seven years her senior.
  • The rapist assaulted the speaker one night when she was nineteen, after which the speaker avoided discussing the experience and was “crazy” for five years.
  • Ten years after the rape, the speaker chooses to write about her trauma openly, even if the result is that her “Rape Joke” poem becomes all she is known for.

Summary

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Last Updated on December 9, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1024

Introduction

Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke” is a prose poem orginally published on the website The Awl in 2013. Touching on controversial issues in modern society, the poem was shared widely and has inspired varied reactions from the online community. The poem is unconventional in structure, with no traditional stanzas, meter, or rhyme scheme. In the piece, Lockwood reflects on a personal experience to broach the sensitive subject of sexual assault and the survivor’s reaction to the attack.

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Summary

Lockwood begins by describing the speaker’s age and relationship to her rapist, framing these details as “the rape joke.” The victim was only nineteen, and the rapist was her boyfriend. He had a goatee, which the speaker imagines the rapist cultivating in order to make himself “look more like a rape joke.”

The rape survivor was seven years younger than her rapist and had known him since she was a child. The rapist didn’t yet find the speaker “interesting” when she was young, but the speaker found it appealing that she could be seen as interesting and desirable to him someday. The speaker then notes that she did grow older but was still fairly young when the rapist took an interest in her.

The rapist and the speaker drank wine coolers together, a detail that rape jokes take as a defining activity for someone who will be raped. The rapist was a bouncer who restricted people from entering a building, but he encroached on his victim rather than keeping her “out.”

The rapist had a knife that he liked to show off to the speaker, but she interpreted his actions as a sign of his attachment to the knife, not as a threat to her own safety. The rapist once threw another man through a window, nearly killing him, but his apparent nervousness about having done so made the speaker think the rapist was sensitive.

The rapist told his victim the two of them were going on dates, but in reality they would simply go to the rapist’s friend’s house, where the rapist and his friends watched wrestling and “got high.” The rapist admired The Rock and the way he raised his eyebrow. He appreciated the drama of wrestling, which he compared to that of soap operas.

All of the rapist’s books were about serial killers, but the speaker thought he must simply be interested in history. She tried to give him a novel by Günter Grass, but he never read it. The speaker thinksit funny that the rapist kept his own diary and ponders whether he recorded his thoughts about raping her in the diary. The speaker once read the diary and learned of a girl the rapist referred to as “Miss Geography.” He had written that he no longer desired Miss Geography since meeting the speaker, and the speaker thinks the other woman made a lucky escape.

The rapist was a student of the victim’s father’s in high school. The speaker remembers how she helped her father in his classroom and inherited the class’s old textbooks. The rapist had known the speaker since she was only twelve and had helped the family with an interstate move. The speaker rode in the car with the rapist by herself, ridiculing him for chewing tobacco but finding him “kind.”

The speaker reflects on all the signs she “should have seen” that this man would one day rape her. She notes that the rape joke is easy to write given those signs. The speaker then describes the rape itself: she was facedown, she remembers what she was wearing, and she has since destroyed a necklace she had on that day. She remembers how the bed felt and how her open mouth felt, and she imagines that her past self was reciting the very poem she is now narrating.

The speaker considers the nature of time and the body, describing each as becoming both easier and more difficult to inhabit after the rape. She thinks about how the body rebounds from such an experience and observes that while “the body of time . . . heals quickly,” she remembers that she bled as a result of the rape.

The speaker recalls that she acted like nothing unusual had happened after she was raped. She went home and behaved normally; she even laughed about it. She didn’t tell her parents about the assault for a year because the rapist was a close friend of the family. When she finally did tell them, her father made the sign of the cross over her and told her she was forgiven. The speaker knows this was wrong but also thinks of it as sentimental and poignant.

The speaker reveals that she struggled with mental illness for five years after the rape. She moved multiple times but was unable to escape the memory of the assault, losing entire days to wondering why she had been raped. After a while she was no longer “crazy,” but she still thinks Miss Geography was lucky to have escaped the rapist.

During those same five years, the speaker wrote constantly but deliberately avoided writing about herself or the assault. Now that she has written a poem called “Rape Joke,” she says, all people will know about her is that she was raped.

The speaker asked her rapist why he raped her, but he didn't have an answer. Instead, he blamed her for being drunk and accused her of misremembering events. The speaker remembers the fruit-flavored wine coolers the two of them drank before the rape and reflects that she trusted the rapist at the time.

The speaker wonders whether rape jokes can be funny, or what part of the jokes can be funny, if any can. She remembers dreaming of “killing the rape joke” but indicates that in the end, she has simply told the story exactly as it happened.

The day after he raped her, the rapist apologized to the speaker and gave her a copy of the Beach Boys record Pet Sounds. The speaker ends the poem by insisting that this detail must at least be somewhat funny.

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